“It’s not possible!”
That’s the feeling a lot of people on the jiu-jitsu mats will have when the subject of keeping your neck and shoulders healthy is brought up.
To some degree it’s a fair point. If you belong to a world where people are often trying to strangle you or break your arm in to smaller pieces, your neck and shoulders are likely to take a bit of a battering. Especially the neck! If it’s not being strangled then it’s probably being cranked on or at least pulled about as your opponent uses your head to manipulate you and how your positioned. This all makes the likelihood of a sore neck or cranky shoulders very, very, high.
But this ‘I’m doing jiu-jitsu so I’m going to have a crap neck’ approach is part of the problem. There are plenty of things we can do to help ourselves and if we want to keep doing the art we love (as well as look over our shoulder as we reverse a car) it’s important we spend some time showing our neck and shoulders some TLC.
There are some things we should consider before we start:
- Firstly the neck is a complex area so if you’re suffering with some issues it’s highly recommended you get it looked at by a trained professional. And if those issues are things like intense shooting pain, tingling or numbness IT IS ESSENTIAL YOU GO AND GET IT CHECKED.
- Secondly, be careful if you’re performing self massage around your neck. I know it feels nice to massage the surrounding muscles but it’s not always the right thing to do and again your neck is more complicated than something like your quad. If you are going to do it be very gentle, but I would recommend getting a trained professional with experienced hands to do the work if you feel it needs some manual therapy.
- Lastly, and this is a common mistake on the mats, accept the fact that you’re injured! You are always going to get niggles when doing this sport and it can be super frustrating when it feels like it’s stopping your progress but pushing through is never really the answer. Taking your time to let things heal and then rehabbing them properly is the best way to make sure a problem doesn’t keep coming back, or worse, escalate into a bigger problem. And if you keep picking up niggles and injuries it’s time to listen to the pain and address the larger picture. Things like:
- Are you doing enough stuff off the mats in terms of rest, prehab and nutrition?
- Does your technique or approach to sparring need refining?
- Is there too much intensity or volume in your training load?
So what can we do to help out our neck and shoulders as much as possible?
Well the first place to start is to look at our posture and mobility. Simply put if we don’t have a sound posture then we’re already starting out with a higher risk of discomfort and injury. Likewise if we don’t have enough mobility to perform the moves we’re doing then we have more chance of causing inflammation and eventually an injury of some sort.
In jiu-jitsu populations you often see the following postural problems:
- An overly rounded upper back
- A forward head
- Rounded shoulders
- And, more specifically in jiu-jitsu, heavily toned lats which pull the scapula and shoulder girdle downwards
The techniques listed below will look to improve these common postural problems.
*One last consideration. If these postures don’t apply to you then avoid using the techniques as you can end up over correcting and causing a whole new set of issues. if you’re not sure what your posture is doing then the best approach is to ask someone who can help you.
Neck tension is a common trait amongst most people, let alone the BJJ community. Now this can be posture related and it can be due to muscle length / asymmetrical issues, but it also has a lot to do with how we breathe. Thanks to seated positions we tend to do a lot of our breathing through our neck and chest. Not only does this lead us towards the fight or flight stress response, it also means we tend to take shorter, shallower breaths. This leaves us with a body and mind that’s constantly on edge. It also tends to tighten up our neck muscles which are overworked due to the fact they’re not meant to be used as the primary breathing muscles. Another reason that breathing is an important consideration is the volume of breaths we take. On average a person can take 23,000 breaths per day! That’s a lot of extra work for muscles that aren’t meant to be doing this job.
Ideally we want to breathe using our diaphragm. This means that the initial inflation comes through our belly and not our chest. Try to inflate through your belly for the first two thirds of the breath and then let the breath expand into the chest. Aim to practice this for 5-10 minutes daily.
For anyone looking for better posture as well as decent shoulder and neck mobility, good movement in the thoracic spine is a must.
To perform the thoracic rotation drill:
- Set up on your side with your top leg supported and your bottom leg straight. You can use a support for your head if needed.
- Now stretch the arm closest to the ground away from you and wrap the top arm around your body.
- Keeping your lower body still use your arm to encourage your ribs to rotate as you take your back towards the floor.
- You can either stay in this position and cycle deep belly breaths or rotate back and forth.
The pec muscles tend to get a lot of use both in the gym and in sport. Thanks to sitting, driving and mobile phones they also get left in a shortened position a lot of the time. This can lead to them pulling the shoulders into a rounded position putting a lot of tension on the neck muscles and making the shoulder joint more prone to injury.
To perform the pec stretch:
- Place your arm on a frame, forming 90 degree angles at the shoulder and elbow.
- Step forward with the foot on the same side and gently move your shoulder blade across your back.
- To enhance the stretch more, turn your body away from the frame and/or slightly lean forward.
- Avoid excessive force or arching in the lower back.
- Relax in this position and cycle some deep breaths.
Another muscle group that get’s a lot of focus in the gym, as well as in jiu-jitsu, are the lats. Too much tension in these muscles can lead to the shoulder blade and collar bones being pulled downwards. Again this leads to excessive neck tension and a shoulder joint more prone to injury.
To perform the lat stretch:
- Start on the floor in a 4-point position.
- Reach one arm out in front of you and turn the palm upwards as much as you can.
- Now imagine you’ve glued that hand to the floor so it can’t move and gently sit back towards your heels.
- To enhance the stretch more use your other hand to push you sideways towards the arm that you’re stretching.
- Cycle deep breaths in this position or move gently from side to side.
When trying any of these techniques keep your eye out for obvious asymmetries. If one side is significantly worse than the other then it would be a good idea to spend some time on it and even things up as much as you can.
Take it easy at first and experiment a bit with each one to see if they’re right for you. Finally remember to stay consistent. A little and often approach is far better than one big campaign that ends after a few weeks.
If you want to understand these exercises in more detail, plus learn some more, keep your eyes peeled for one of our workshops. The workshops will cover techniques in more detail with the chance for you to ask questions and be coached. Sign up to our newsletter below to keep up to date with our workshop dates.
If you’d like to explore your specific neck or shoulder pain in more depth then why not book in for a chat (it’s free!)? You can tell us all the details and we can work out the best way for you to get pain free and back to the mat better than ever!
Until next time.
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